Scott Turow's One L · Snapped · The Myth Of The Superpredator

Plus a book excerpt, Australia's "Night Caller," and Danny Trejo

The crime
Student loans? [insert lawyer joke here]? Scott Turow’s One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School is more of an academic memoir, although Turow — best known for the legal thriller Presumed Innocent, which everyone I knew tore through when it came out in the late ’80s — did go from Harvard Law into the U.S. Attorney’s office as a public-corruption prosecutor. (In Chicago. So he wasn’t bored.)

The story
I four-starred it on Goodreads, but I don’t know that it’s actually that good; it did successfully overtake me with nostalgia — but for going to school, for having nothing to think about but books and outlines, and for the time that I last experienced school as a student, when students had only just started to lug heavy, overheating-prone Compaqs into lectures. The titular year in Turow’s “blended memoir” (his diary entries from that school year are interspersed with recollections “in tranquility,” i.e., on the other side of surviving the entirety of law school, a decade in the field, and a runaway best seller) takes place in the mid-seventies, so he and his colleagues lug typewriters into exam rooms dedicated to the noisy operation thereof…along with

earplugs, paper, four pencils, four pens, three rolls of mints, two packs of cigarettes, a cup of iced coffee, a Coke, two chocolate bars, a pencil sharpener, an extension cord for my typewriter.

Even I’m not old enough to remember smoking in a classroom, but I do still own a pencil sharpener (used primarily on eyeliner, but still), and reading One L as the weather’s getting truly cold brought me right back to the simultaneously drafty and hideously overheated precincts of McCosh and 185 Nassau, in which the battle for the soul of Sir Gawain was joined by the scent of cooked wool.

At evoking these sense memories in a specific sentimental sort of reader, One L is excellent. It’s also very good at opening a window into the panicked, grinding day-to-day life of a 1L, reflecting a mindset so overworked that it has no time to reflect, only to create exhausted little tornados of self-loathing. Twenty years ago, I was dating a Boston College 1L, and Turow’s account of his own experience brought me right back to the witnessing of my then-boyfriend’s tortures, right down to Turow’s elegantly bleak account of Boston-area weather in the wintertime.

Other aspects of the book work less well, like Turow’s periodic present-day irising out to talk about minorities and women at Harvard and other law schools, which feels perfunctory. The extended complaining about the Socratic teaching method, and about one formidable professor in particular, isn’t a great look thanks to the pious tone, and a string of rhetorical questions about the purpose of a J.D. program that someone with Turow’s real-world experience should have more substantive answers to. But the more tiresome sections make themselves apparent, allowing a switch to skim mode, and until the last quarter of One L, it’s effectively structured and paced.

This one’s a bit tough to find — I’m racing to finish this review before the library takes back my virtual copy and I have to join a four-week hold line — but my library does have it, and you can find a used copy at the link above for just a few bucks. Leaf through 4-5 pages before you buy, though; it’s not essential, but if you’re nostalgic for the same sets of autumn days I am (mmm, that smell of pencil shavings!), you’ll know in a handful of paragraphs whether it’s for you. — SDB

Still haven’t got around to reading Furious Hours yet? CrimeReads ran an excerpt last week. I reviewed it last year for paid subscribers, and I definitely recommend it — and any of Cep’s more recent writing in The New Yorker.

The excerpt at CR focuses on Harper Lee’s role as Truman Capote’s wingperson in Kansas when he first headed out to dig into the Clutter murders, with a cameo from “a giant tiger-striped cat called Courthouse Pete,” so if you’ve been on the fence about whether to commit to the book, this might push you over to one side or the other.

CrimeReads also dropped a piece on Jonestown and the “empathy gap” by Courtney Summers, a novelist whose latest, The Project, describes as a “pulls-no-punches thriller about an aspiring young journalist determined to save her sister from a cult.” Summers chooses to write her piece in the second person, a conceit that kind of obscures the occasional insight into the challenges an author faces in writing cults “relatably” from the top down; there’s also rather more repetitive lecturing than I’d like about glib jokes and dismissal of Jonestown survivors’ experience, but then, true-crime critics spend more time with that tragedy than “civilians” and don’t need virtue-prompting in our reactions. A missed opportunity there, I’d say, but I’m interested to hear what you guys think. — SDB

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A four-parter on Australia’s “The Night Caller” premieres Sunday, November 29 on Stan. That means it’s likely to wind up on Acorn or Sundance Now in early 2021, but here’s hoping one of our Australian correspondents can tell us whether After The Night worth marking our calendars for. Created by Thomas Meadmore, After The Night “delves into” the story of Eric Edgar Cooke, one of Australia’s most infamous serial killers; Cooke murdered eight people and attacked many others before police finally connected all his crimes, and was executed in Fremantle Prison in 1964 — but not, apparently, before two other men were wrongfully convicted for his crimes.

I admit I hadn’t heard of the case before; if you hadn’t either, there’s a good overview here, along with a bibliography, if anyone can recommend (or not) anything on that list. — SDB

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Snapped “celebrated” its 500th episode over the weekend. That might not sound like all that many for a genre staple that seems like it’s on all day, but then you start making the comparisons — Law & Order: Mothership only had 450-ish; Bonanza, the go-to reference for long-running shows, had even fewer that that — and you realize how nuts it is that Oxygen’s top-performing lethal-ladies show has half a thousand.

So…how? How does a show that’s the Hootie & the Blowfish of basic-cable true crime — neither adored nor despised, but with millions of units sold — get to that many episodes? I had a couple theories at Primetimer; here’s one:

The literal construction of the show is competent and workmanlike; each story proceeds in an orderly and formulaic fashion, starting with the crime, flashing back to the prime suspect's background, then zooming back in to the investigation and trial. The same eight or nine photos appear over and over, and the talking-head interviewees — who are lit and made up with, I'd say, minimal effort — drop the sound bites they understand are required of them. The average Snapped episode is basically a Mad Lib. That's not a bad thing, necessarily. I'd compare it to travelers going to Starbucks in strange cities: it's not that the coffee's that great, but it's exactly the same in Augusta, ME as it is in Augusta, GA.

I note later that the show’s marketing team looooooves to make a BFD about ladies who cheat…with other ladies, which is both uncool and demonstrably effective. So, Snapped in a nutshell, I guess. Anyway, the five hundredth ep aired on Saturday, along with a never-seen alternative pilot ep. Did you watch, or were you catching up on Below Deck Med like I was? — SDB

Belly Of The Beast airs tonight on Independent Lens! I liked the doc a lot when I reviewed it a few months ago, and provided your PBS station carries IL, now you can watch it for free…and share my rage. — SDB

The conclusion to Skip Hollandsworth’s “Tom Brown’s Body” series is on Texas Monthly’s website if, like me, you’ve been reading instead of listening to the podcast (which is also great).

When I started working on this story almost a year ago, I assumed that the truth about Tom’s case would eventually come out. I assumed the “Justice for Tom” signs would be removed and peace would return to the small town.

I sort of assumed it would too, because it’s Hollandsworth, and if there is a truth to come out, it’s going to run into that man’s arms first and foremost. And it still may; Hollandsworth mentions an upcoming grand jury, although based on context, that seems like a fishing expedition. You can read the series here.

When you’ve finished, hop over to the piece from the same issue on Danny Trejo (not really a true-crime topic, but because he did time in some of California’s most notorious prisons five decades back, I’ll allow it). — SDB

The Marshall Project digs into the term “super-predator,” in coverage that calls it “The Media Myth That Demonized a Generation of Black Youth.” Every time I hear the term, I think of that famous footage of Hillary Rodham Clinton saying it…or trying to; her whole face is fighting it, like she knows it’s BS, and it comes out as an awkward “super-pray-de-tore.” TMP also has a first-person account from Derrick Hardaway, 14 when he drove the getaway car in the execution death of an 11-year-old, of what it’s like to have that label stick to you forever.

I also tried to keep a still face. The lawyers tell you not to react to things that people say in the courtroom, but then the media said my face showed no remorse.

Then the media said I smiled when the judge announced my sentence. Well, I was facing 20 to 100 years because of the youth of the victim. I thought I was getting 100 years, so when the judge said 45, I smiled a little bit with relief. I tried to hold it in, but I cracked a little smile.

There is some rage-making material here, but I always try to read TMP’s coverage — of anything, really, but especially the testimony of those who have had to live with whatever baked-in-racism sociopolitical “fashions” coincided with their youthful/desperate mistakes. — SDB

Tuesday on Best Evidence: The more things change, the more true-crime buttholes stay the same.

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